Listen to this website

Sally  Sally Young, Chief Executive

I’ve just finished contributing to the eighth (and my final) report on the state of the voluntary sector locally. We called it Canaries in The Coal Mine. Martin Gollan and I have been doing reports since 2010 on the key issues impacting on local voluntary and community organisations. We have looked at different areas (Walker), themes (disability), emerging problems (food banks) and we have also examined public sector behaviour (commissioning).

Our suite of reports illustrates the flexibility and creativity of local organisations trying to respond to the impact of Government policy, the shrinking state, recession, population shifts and changing economic circumstances.

Over the years we have seen some organisations expanding, some decreasing, and indeed closing. However, very few have closed because the needs of people and communities are no longer there. The majority of closures have been due to (lack of) funding, governance fallouts, being decommissioned, pension problems, failure to recruit and retain trustees/ management committee members and volunteers, too many responsibilities and just too much to do that isn’t related to the cause.

Yet at the same time we are regularly contacted by enthusiastic people wanting to set up charities and social enterprises to do good stuff.

But against all of this is the background of Government policy, the changing state, the economy, the position of the North East in the UK (and dare I say Europe), population shifts and the increasing use of digital technologies.

I was interviewed for the post of Chief Executive for Newcastle CVS in March 2010 and I came into post in June 2010. There was a general election in May 2010 and the Coalition Government was formed and it engaged on a process of austerity. In the following two years, David Cameron, the Prime Minister, announced programmes on ‘modernising commissioning’ ‘opening up public services’ and the Localism Act came into being. The Big Society programme was launched to ‘promote community empowerment, open up public services and encourage social action’; all admirable themes but when played out against the austerity programme, looked more like the substitute of paid, professional services by unpaid volunteers.

Inevitably, as I move away from being Chief Executive and reflect on trends, the issue that stands out (and horrifies me the most) is the normalisation of poverty, the acceptance of foodbanks and other similar initiatives and role of charities and communities organisations in trying to step in to those areas where the state no longer provides support. This is not sustainable and the cracks are obvious.

So the optimist in me hopes we are seeing the end of austerity, an improved economy, recognition and respect for voluntary and community organisations and volunteers. The realist in me believes there is a way to go and some communities will have further shocks and declining services, and the future state will be different. As for the pessimist – there isn’t one.  

Read Canaries in the Coal Mine

Please join in the discussion online #CanariesITCM